The visitors looked up at the strange, irregular form of the water tank that crowned the edifice, and the big parabolic dish that would supply television images to all the floors. On the edge of the dish, a sharp metallic edge on which no bird would have dared to perch, three completely naked men were sitting, with their faces turned up to the midday sun; no one saw them, of course.
This is the world of the Argentinean author César Aira: fleetingly realist with sudden shifts to the absurd. Later, these ghosts become central to Aira’s tale. But to start, and even for several pages after their first appearance, they are flashes in the prose as the novel appears to be a simpler thing: a story about one poor construction worker, who lives on the site as its watchman, celebrating New Year’s Eve with his family.
If you don’t know anything about Aira before reading your first few pages, such twists will creep up on you unwittingly. Read more of Aira’s work (since 1975 he has published an average of two books per year), and you may start expecting them. But you will still be hard-pressed to know just exactly what might happen next. Aira has written more than 80 books over his multi-decade career — eight are available in English — and nearly every time, his characters find themselves mixed up in perplexing and often preposterous plots.
Aira’s books explore, often in lighthearted ways, how far we can let fiction impose itself on our day-to-day existence. He does not write about awry worlds, but rather about our world suddenly gone very awry, exemplifying what Freud once argued about the uncanny’s presence in fiction. The feeling only appears, Freud wrote, when an author limits himself to the confines of common reality:
In this case [the author] accepts all the conditions operating to create uncanny feelings in real life; and everything that would have an uncanny effect in reality has it in his story. But in this case, too, he can increase his effect and multiply it far beyond what could happen in reality, by bringing about events that never or very rarely happen in fact.
This complacency-before-shock effect is Aira’s touchstone; over a prolific career he has developed a signature matter-of-fact, no frills prose to showcase it. His writing displays little emotion, evinces no sense of surprise — even as events become increasingly unbelievable. This, for example, is how Aira’s protagonist in The Literary Conference (who, as is often the case, shares Aira’s name) introduces an outrageous turn in the plot:
To begin with, we saw that the alarm was justified, to say the least. I don’t know exactly how to describe it. At first, it was otherworldly; it was still dawn, the sun hadn’t yet appeared, the sky was very clear and very empty, bodies projected no shadows… and colossal blue worms were slowly descending from the mountain peaks.
Aira was born in Coronel Pringles, a small town just south of Buenos Aires, the city where he eventually settled in 1967. Once there, he became deeply influenced by the surrealism and avant-garde Argentine literature of the time, particularly the work of the poet Osvaldo Lamborghini. The lessons of those literary movements have remained with Aira, though they are found mostly in the rigid process by which he constructs his work, not in the final products.
“If I commit an error, if one page goes wrong,” Aira told the Argentine newspaper Clarín in 2010, “I don’t change anything. I keep going and don’t correct it. Sometimes by going forward you capitalize on your errors and they cease to be errors.”
Aira sees himself as part of the tradition of “automatism,” though he doesn’t partake in that technique’s normal speed of production. He writes a novel straight through, beginning with the idea for an opening scene, working slowly but surely — without looking back — until the rest of the story comes to fruition.
The method turns his novels into fascinating hybrids: rollicking, unpredictable tales that reflect an experimental writing process but remain remarkably coherent and readable — hardly identifiable with the avant-garde. Aira may engage in a more contemporary writing practice, but he has equal amounts in common with our most primitive modes of storytelling. From time to time he indulges in long philosophical passages, but he’s concerned primarily with grabbing the reader using page-turning narratives.
To aid in this pursuit, Aira fills his work with stereotypes and stock personalities — befuddled bureaucrats, mad scientists, obtuse foreigners, and mad natives — which allow him, as he told the Barcelona Review, to “reach the plot quicker, and make it unravel faster, without the burden of psychological causality. I can permit myself other causalities, like those of the fable.” Perhaps the best way to describe Aira, then, is as an Aesop in Breton’s clothing.
But that can give the sense that his novels are at best superficial pleasures — stories to tear through, but not think too much about. The reality, like Aira’s plots, is more complicated. His novels generally begin in a world that is recognizably our own, with a mundane event that triggers something extraordinary. 2002’s Varamo, for example, begins with its neurotic title character, a Panamanian government worker, being thrown into fits of anxiety after discovering he has been paid his salary with counterfeit bills. But it’s also a story about how the greatest Latin American poem of the 20th century was written, and a look at a political conspiracy in early 20th-century Panama.
Often, Aira’s stories turn even more fantastical — such as when giant worms begin crawling out of the mountains and threaten to crush a Venezuelan town in The Literary Conference, or when five-foot tall ducks appear on a beach in The Hare. But a tether — most often in the form of Aira’s nonchalant prose — always keeps us connected, however loosely, to something closer to real life.
The tenuous link to reality in Aira’s novels places them comfortably in what, for most people, is the common style of Latin American literature — in line with the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Jorge Luis Borges. This is a broad lineage, sometimes internally divisive; as Daniel Zalewski wrote in an essay for The New Yorker, a writer like Roberto Bolaño would later try to elevate the modernism of Borges and set it against the magical realism of Marquez. Yet the obvious differences between these two authors, as well as between countless others writing in similar veins — Daniel Sata, Isabel Allende, Juan Rulfo, and others — doesn’t discount the fact that they operate in similar milieus; if anything, their distinctions highlight the variety of approaches that exist within a common affinity for the fantastical.
“I think of my books,” Aira has said, “less as reflections or representations and more like instruments or tools with which to operate on reality.” Such an approach brings about different effects: uncanny encounters between characters and their doubles, preposterous and humorous twists of plot, or sometimes, such as in the twisted use of ice cream in How I Became a Nun’s ending, dark and delirious ones. In every case, however, the surreal aspects begin as oddities visible only out of the corner of our eyes, like the signs of conspiracy in Varamo that begin only as seeming flights of the protagonist’s imagination. They only emerge completely with time, often not until we reach Aira’s outlandish climaxes.
The circuitous paths Aira travels can lead to unsettling or foreboding places, but his general preference is for a lighter approach. The Hare, just translated this year by Nick Caistor for New Directions, may be the least remarkable of Aira’s works available in English, but it’s very much of a piece with Aira’s more carefree inclinations. Opening at the ranch of ruthless Argentine dictator Rosas (a historical figure), Aira introduces Clarke, an English naturalist who has come to explore Argentina’s interior provinces. Before doing so, Clarke visits Rosas, who puts on a display of equestrian skills he uses to impress all foreigners. Riding around the track on his horse, Rosas’s spectacle quickly turns into a ludicrous exercise typical of Aira:
The third time [Rosas] rode past, his feet were level with the horse’s ears; at the fourth, his body was completely horizontal. After that, he swung right underneath his mount’s belly, rode standing up, stood on one foot, knelt down, knelt facing backwards holding the reins with his feet, then with his teeth as touched the soles of his boots with the palms of his hands.
Aira rarely goes long without reminding the reader that his world is very much open to ridicule. His characters are often oblivious or delusional enough that they hardly notice or care that the world is getting strange around them — or they can’t quite comprehend what’s happening. And under the effect of Aira’s unadorned prose, such descriptions of characters bumbling through complex situations take on the farcical feel of Monty Python sketches, particularly when Aira provides short blasts of his dry humor, as in this instance from The Hare:
Clarke quickly got over the incident; at other times in his life he would have left, slamming the door behind him. There might have been several reasons for him not doing so on this occasion, but perhaps the main one was that there was no door to slam, nor indeed any “outside” for him to exit to. This made a great difference.
Aira’s characters also often bear the brunt of his jokes, such as in Varamo, where Aira has the title character stand in a public plaza, exacerbated by a sudden misfortune that has befallen him. “Varamo had always wondered how people managed to go on living,” Aira writes. “Now he thought he knew the answer: they could do it because they didn’t have to wonder how they would change their counterfeit bills.”
And Aira doesn’t let himself off the hook, either. A candidate for one of his best lines comes from a supernatural encounter in Ghosts and represents a clear jab at his own fantastical digressions: “Seeing ten naked men with their dicks dangling while washing clothes in the kitchen wasn’t exactly the most realistic experience.”
This frivolity defines Aira’s writing as much as his surrealism and sparse prose; furthermore, it equally distinguishes him from his prominent forbearers. Borges, for all the extravagant and unbelievable scenarios he imagined, never wrote with the same degree of playful abandon. When Aira’s characters develop Borgesian grand theories about the universe, they are splayed over many pages and hard to pin down. In The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, the title character continuously tries to elucidate the nature of his mysterious medical practice, eventually leading to this moment of frustration, as told by the narrator:
But I don’t think I’ve explained myself well. I’ll try again using other words. The work he was undertaking was nothing less than the identification of all the facts that made up the Universe, the so-called “real” ones in the narrow sense as well as in all the other others: imaginary, virtual, possible; as well as grouping of facts, that is, a thousand-year-old empire as well as one’s first attempt to drink a beer.
Borges’s characters are equally given to mind-bending, universe-encompassing experiments. They rarely fumble with and misinterpret them like Aira’s characters do, though.
Aira’s distinctive lightheartedness, however, also illuminates the central risk of his style, which has deceptive simplicity that can lead one to dismiss the deeper reverberations in his work as a whole. Aira’s novels display a consistent engagement with the importance of storytelling and the act of writing. For Aira, as for Borges, the act of literary creation is a sacred one. Both share a fascination with language, a belief in its transformative power, that’s present in Aira’s characters and their musings on the meanings and double meanings that language contains, in their talk about the mysteries and confusions of translation, and most of all in Aira’s constant exploration of what our created narratives about mad scientists and naked ghosts say about the world in which we live, about the interplay of the seen and unseen, the known and unknown within it.
Aira may sometimes undercut his books — he calls out their fictional contrivances in the text (in the Literary Conference, the protagonist acknowledges that some events “seem like the insertion of a different plot line, from an old B-rated science fiction movie”) and dismisses their psychological depth in interviews — but the play between fantasy and reality in his work is more than a road to lively narratives. As otherworldly elements slowly figure in, eventually accumulating to dominate the lives of Aira’s characters, they start to break the distinction between fantasy and reality down. Take, for instance, what this passage from Ghosts builds towards:
She dreamed of the building on top of which she was sleeping, not as it would be later on, not seeing it finished and inhabited, but as it was now, that is, under construction. It was a calm vision, devoid of troubling portents or inventions, almost a verification of the facts. But there is always a difference between dreams and reality, which becomes clearer as the superficial contrast diminishes. The difference in this case was reflected in the architecture, which is, in itself, a reciprocal mirroring of what has already been built and what will be built eventually. The all-important bridge between the two reflections was provided by a third term: the unbuilt.
The fantasies that figure in Aira’s works are, in their manic, out-of-control, and absurd ways, also visions of the “unbuilt” — works of imagination that can be unnerving, funny, or unthinkable, but which proceed from and accumulate on top of our everyday lives, providing the all-important bridge between fact and fiction, present and future.
Reviewing Miracle Cures for the Argentine paper La Nación, Raúl Brasca compared Aira to Ray Bradbury, noting that both writers give expression to “new conceptions of reality” that reflect the technological changes of their times. In Aira’s case, Brasca writes, his novels are products of a time when “the limits of reality have become less clear and the proper field of what we think of as real has expanded.”
The more of Aira one reads, the clearer it becomes that his plots are not mere whims of the imagination — that by taking such extravagant turns in his narratives, Aira is questioning the contours of the real world he seems to be gleefully leaving behind and at the same time mirroring our own efforts, often thwarted, to adapt to rapidly-changing realities. His characters — neurotic, clumsy, or naïve as they are — contend with a common dilemma: how to carry ourselves in a world that increasingly seems beyond our control.
In How I Became a Nun, Aira describes a game that the protagonist, César, a lonely six year old, plays with his mother when they go out for errands: “What I did was to ‘tail’ her. I’d let her get ahead, a hundred meters or so, while I hid, and then I’d follow her, remaining hidden, going from tree to tree, doorway to doorway.” Of course, the game is one-sided, more valuable for how it helps César experience the world and his place in it than for any participation the mother might provide. “It was sheer love of fiction,” Aira writes, and his novels are filled to the brim with the same.
That passion is essential to the vitality of Aira’s work. Aira’s literary significance, like that of many other science fiction writers, comes from how he pushes us to question the porous line between fact and fantasy, to see it not only as malleable in history, but also blurred in the everyday. The engrossing power of his work, though, comes from how he carries out these feats: with the inexhaustible energy and pleasure of a child chasing after imaginary enemies in the park.
Tomas Hachard is a freelance writer who has written about art, politics, and himself for NPR, The Morning News, and Guernica, among others.